Cold war rivals vie to stage football’s big event

Image of Simon Kuper

During the last World Cup, a curious sideshow played out at expensive breakfast tables in Johannesburg’s business district of Sandton. The actors: lobbyists and officials. The stake: the right to host the World Cups of 2018 and 2022. On December 2, the 24 men on Fifa’s executive committee will select both hosts. Here’s the interim report on how the race stands:

The 2018 Cup will most likely go to a European country. England might seem the obvious choice. The country’s stadiums and infrastructure could host the tournament tomorrow morning.

However, England lacks friends within Fifa. It’s perceived as arrogant, and as having done little to administer the international game. That’s why two international administrators, Geoff Thompson and David Dein, now front England’s bid. But it’s an uphill struggle.

Also, Fifa’s officials dread Britain’s tabloids dogging their every step and bugging their hotel rooms for eight years. And if the US gets the 2022 competition, as seems likely, Fifa would probably avoid two consecutive English-speaking hosts.

Spain and Portugal, joint bidders, are more popular inside Fifa. They also traditionally get the Latin American vote. Yet they seem to have few other votes. Moreover, this debt-stricken duo would need to fork out for new stadiums.

Nobody knocks the Belgian-Dutch bid. Yet that’s a sign that its rivals don’t fear it. The Low Countries promise a compact and green World Cup. Those may not be the most compelling selling points. The Dutch also fear they are too strait-laced for the lobbying game.

Still, officials inside this bid think they will get votes that nobody now foresees – chiefly from small countries that also hope to make joint bids for a World Cup one day.

For now, though, insiders are tipping Russia for 2018. Fifa delights in tapping new markets through World Cups. Russia is a white spot on Europe’s footballing map. It has never hosted a major football tournament. Crucially, it can muster more lobbying might than its rivals. When Vladimir Putin phones asking for your support, you probably say yes. A Russian World Cup would cost a lot, but if Putin wants to spend the money, Russia will.

As for the 2022 World Cup, the most important words spoken in this race came from a country that isn’t even bidding. Wei Di, new head of China’s football federation, said this month: “I think China should apply for the World Cup [of 2026].”

China’s government will make the decision, not Wei Di. But Fifa would love China to bid. If the country signals it will, that would shape the race for 2022. If China gets 2026, no Asian country could stage 2022, because continents cannot host twice running. The only non-Asian bidder for 2022 is the US. So if China wants to bid, the US would surely get 2022.

That makes sense anyway. True, the US hosted the tournament as recently as 1994, but American interest in soccer has surged since. The US hits Fifa’s two sweet spots: its soccer market is both lucrative and growing. Ticket sales in huge American stadiums would raise fortunes. However, the country wouldn’t let in every person holding a match ticket – something Fifa would normally require.

Japan and South Korea hosted the World Cup in 2002. Now each wants to host it separately. Most observers think that’s too soon. These bids may be devices to keep Japanese and Korean officials off the streets.

Australia presents its bid as a proxy for the growing Indian and Chinese markets. However, that argument is holed if China bids. Australia needs China to stay out. If that happens, Australia hopes Japan and Korea will back it after they are knocked out in early voting.

Qatar is spending oil money on lobbying. But few foreigners want a World Cup played in the desert, in indoor stadiums in 40-degree heat. Choosing Qatar would look a choice for money. That would make Fifa look tacky.

For now, Russia and the US look the frontrunners.

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